Five Tuolumne County towns are among the places in California where the risk of wildfire is highest for people who are low-income, 65 or older, or disabled, according to a new analysis of data by Direct Relief, a nonprofit humanitarian-aid organization.
Cedar Ridge, Mono Vista, Soulsbyville and Twain Harte were ranked among the top 25 communities with the highest “social vulnerability” to wildfires based on their demographics, out of the 75 throughout the state where 90 percent of the population lives in what Cal Fire calls a “very high fire hazard severity zone.”
Phoenix Lake ranked among the top 50, with a “moderate” social-vulnerability score.
Such vulnerable populations are integrated into the county government’s planning for disaster response and recovery, Michelle Jachetta, emergency preparedness coordinator for the county Public Health Department.
“Almost everyone can be vulnerable in natural disasters, but those who have disabilities or access and functional needs may have a more difficult time evacuating and finding shelter,” she said.
The findings by Direct Relief are based on a separate analysis by the McClatchy, owners of The Sacramento Bee, that identified the 75 communities located in areas of the state with most severe fire risk through data from Cal Fire and the U.S. Census Bureau.
To determine a “social vulnerability” score for each of the communities, Direct Relief used factors recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that included the percentages of people in each town who are 65 or older, living below the poverty line, have a disability, and households with no vehicles.
Cedar Ridge ranked the most socially vulnerable to fire among the towns in the county, with 11 percent of the approximately 1,132 residents living below the poverty line, 21 percent 65 or older, 2 percent without a vehicle, and 23 percent with a disability.
The second most vulnerable was Mono Vista, followed by Soulsbyville, Twain Harte, and Phoenix Lake.
Jachetta said the county Public Health Department maintains a “health emergency preparedness and response plan” and coordinates with the county Office of Emergency Services.
There’s also the county Healthcare and Safety Coalition that meets every other month and could be used during an emergency to help reach out to vulnerable populations.
The coalition consists of a wide variety of public and nonprofit entities that include the county Sheriff’s Office, Public Health Department, Amador-Tuolumne Community Action Agency, Area 12 Agency on Aging, and Disability Resource Agency for Independent Living, among others.
“Every incident is going to be different, so part of the responsibility is looking at what’s going on,” said Jachetta. “For example, the Healthcare and Safety Coalition could gather together and reach out to their clients in an event like a wildfire.”
There’s also an option for people who sign up for the county’s Everbridge alert system, which can be done on the county’s website, to indicate that they are disabled so law enforcement has that on record in the event of an evacuation.
Liz Peterson, the county’s emergency services coordinator, said the fact that there are towns with higher percentages of vulnerable groups than the rest of the state is not a secret.
“I’ve got to say I’m surprised it’s only these five communities,” she said. “There are a lot of vulnerable communities in our county.”
The county’s median age is 48, about 12 years older than the statewide median. Nearly 25 percent of the county is 65 or older, compared to 13 percent of the state population.
Peterson said the county has an agreement with the Tuolumne County Transportation Council for the use of public buses to rescue people who immobile in an emergency situation, but she advised the best thing people can do is make their own escape plan.
Another tip that Peterson provided was for people to get to know their neighbors and whether any of them have mobility issues or other functional needs.
“Our deputies do the best they can when a disaster strikes, but they might not be able to get everyone,” she said. “That’s always the goal, but people need to have a plan of their own.”
Four of the five towns in the county that were found to be among the most vulnerable are located within supervisorial District 2, which is represented by County Supervisor Ryan Campbell, who was elected last November.
Campbell echoed Peterson’s sentiments about the need for people to be responsible for themselves and come up with a plan to get out quickly if a fast-moving fire hits.
“Getting people prepared before a fire happens is kind of the strategy the county has taken,” he said. “By the time the fire has broken out, it’s too late.”
A series of public meetings were held earlier this year in communities throughout the county, including Cedar Ridge and Soulsbyville in Campbell’s district.
The meetings included members of the county’s emergency services staff, Sheriff’s Office, Cal Fire, and Animal Control, who gave advice on how to best prepare for a fire and preventable measures like clearing brush and flammable vegetation from around their home.
Campbell said he attended both meetings in his district and the types of people varied, including young families, senior citizens and people in wheelchairs.
Another step the county has taken is by reducing the number of evacuation notices to two. The first is an advisory of a potential need to evacuate, while the second is mandatory order to evacuate.
People who are among the most socially vulnerable groups shouldn’t wait for a mandatory order to evacuate, Campbell added.
“If there’s an evacuation advisory, definitely go before it’s too late,” he said.
Contact Alex MacLean at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 588-4530.